The Treaty of Kanagawa – History and Impact on the Kanagawa Prefecture

Treaty of Kanagawa

Konnichiwa! The Treaty of Kanagawa stands as a pivotal moment in Japan’s history, marking its opening to the world after centuries of isolation. Signed in 1854 between the United States and Japan, this treaty not only transformed international relations but also left a lasting impact on the Kanagawa Prefecture and its people. In this post we will explore the history, implications, and effects of this significant agreement.

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Understanding the Treaty of Kanagawa

Background: Japan’s Isolation

  • For over two centuries, Japan maintained a policy of isolationism, known as sakoku, under the Tokugawa shogunate.
  • This isolation aimed to preserve Japanese culture and protect against foreign influence.

Before Perry’s arrival, Japan had limited interactions with the outside world due to its policy of isolationism, which allowed only a few select foreign powers to engage in limited trade with Japan. The Dutch were one of these privileged nations and maintained a trading post on the island of Dejima in Nagasaki Bay. This trading post was the only place where Japan permitted foreign trade and cultural exchange during the period of isolation.

Commodore Matthew Perry was sent to Japan in 1853, during the Edo period, by the United States government on a diplomatic mission to negotiate the opening of Japanese ports to American ships for refueling, resupplying, and, most importantly, trade.

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Arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry

  • In 1853, Commodore Perry led a squadron of U.S. Navy ships to Japan, demanding the opening of Japanese ports to trade.
  • The subsequent negotiations led to the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854.
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Commodore Matthew Perry.
Photo courtesy of National Museum of the U.S. Navy

As part of Commodore Matthew Perry’s diplomatic mission to Japan in 1853-1854, he carried with him a letter addressed to the Emperor of Japan. This letter, known as the “Letter of the President of the United States to the Emperor of Japan,” was intended to request the opening of Japan to diplomatic and commercial relations with the United States.

The letter, written by President Millard Fillmore, emphasized the desire of the United States to establish friendly and peaceful relations with Japan. It outlined the benefits of trade and mutual cooperation between the two nations. The letter also conveyed the United States’ intention to establish a treaty that would facilitate the exchange of goods and the protection of American citizens in Japan.

Commodore Perry presented this letter to Japanese officials during his negotiations, which ultimately led to the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854. While the letter itself did not directly result in the opening of Japan, it served as a symbolic gesture of the United States’ interest in establishing diplomatic and trade relations with Japan and laid the groundwork for further negotiations.

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Admiral Perry’s Arrival Memorial in Shimoda

Terms of the Treaty

  • The treaty allowed for the establishment of two ports in Japan, Shimoda and Hakodate, for American ships to refuel and resupply.
  • It also ensured the safety of shipwrecked American sailors and established a U.S. consulate in Shimoda.

The Treaty of Kanagawa was signed on March 31, 1854, at the Kanagawa or Yokohama Bay, which is located in present-day Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. The signing ceremony took place aboard the USS Powhatan, a steam frigate commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry. Commodore Perry represented the United States during the negotiations with the Tokugawa shogunate officials. The Japanese representatives included Hayashi Akira and his retinue. The signing of the treaty marked the end of Japan’s policy of isolation and paved the way for increased interaction with the outside world.

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Treaty of Kanagawa. Photo Courtesy of National Archives

Why did Japan Decide to Sign the Treat of Kanagawa?

Japan decided to sign the Treaty of Kanagawa for several key reasons:

  • Pressure from Foreign Powers: Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival in Japan with a squadron of U.S. Navy ships, coupled with the presentation of President Fillmore’s letter to the Emperor, exerted significant pressure on the Japanese government. Perry’s demonstration of American military strength and the potential consequences of refusing to engage in diplomacy or trade with the United States compelled Japanese officials to consider their options seriously.
  • Recognition of Technological Superiority: Japanese officials recognized the technological superiority of Western powers, particularly in terms of military technology and naval capabilities. The arrival of Perry’s steamships, which were far more advanced than anything Japan possessed at the time, highlighted the widening technological gap between Japan and the Western world. This realization likely contributed to the Japanese government’s decision to negotiate rather than confront the United States militarily.
  • Desire to Avoid Conflict: Japan sought to avoid conflict with the United States and other Western powers. The isolationist policies of the Tokugawa shogunate had left Japan vulnerable to external threats, and Japanese leaders were keen to prevent a potentially disastrous military confrontation with a major Western power like the United States. Signing the treaty offered a path to peaceful engagement and potentially favorable terms for Japan.
  • Economic and Technological Benefits: Despite concerns about the potential loss of sovereignty and the influx of foreign influences, Japanese officials recognized the potential economic and technological benefits of opening Japan to trade with Western nations. Access to Western goods, technology, and markets promised opportunities for economic growth and modernization that Japan could not achieve in isolation.
  • Recognition of Changing Global Dynamics: The arrival of Perry and the demands of the United States were indicative of shifting global dynamics and the increasing influence of Western powers in Asia. Japanese officials understood the need to adapt to these changing circumstances and saw the signing of the treaty as a pragmatic response to the realities of the modern world.
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Impact on Kanagawa Prefecture

Economic Transformation

  • Opening of Ports: Shimoda’s designation as a treaty port brought an influx of foreign trade and commerce to the region.
  • Growth of Industry: The treaty spurred the development of industries such as shipping, fishing, and manufacturing in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Cultural Exchange

  • Introduction of Western Ideas: The presence of foreign traders and diplomats introduced Western technology, ideas, and customs to the local population.
  • Influence on Art and Fashion: Kanagawa became a hub for cultural exchange, influencing traditional Japanese arts and fashion.

Social Changes

  • Shift in Power Dynamics: The treaty challenged the authority of the Tokugawa shogunate and sparked debates over Japan’s future direction.
  • Rise of Anti-Western Sentiment: Some segments of society viewed the treaty as a threat to Japanese sovereignty and cultural identity, leading to anti-foreigner sentiments.

Kanagawa Prefecture experienced significant growth and development after the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa. The treaty played a crucial role in opening Japanese ports to foreign trade and investment, leading to economic expansion and modernization in the region.

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The Treaty of Kanagawa played a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of Kanagawa Prefecture, driving its growth and transformation into a vibrant center of trade, industry, and culture in Japan.

Positives and Negatives of the Treaty

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Impact on the People of Kanagawa

Opportunities for Merchants and Entrepreneurs

  • Local merchants capitalized on the growing trade opportunities, expanding their businesses and fortunes.
  • Entrepreneurs seized the chance to innovate and adapt to the changing economic landscape, driving growth and prosperity.

Challenges for Traditionalists

  • Traditionalists struggled to reconcile the influx of Western ideas and customs with their deeply ingrained cultural values.
  • Some resisted the changes brought about by the treaty, fearing the erosion of Japanese identity and heritage.
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The Treaty of Kanagawa heralded a new era for Japan, marking its emergence from centuries of isolation into the global stage. While it brought economic opportunities and cultural exchange to Kanagawa Prefecture, it also posed challenges to traditional values and sovereignty. Today, the legacy of the treaty continues to shape the identity and trajectory of the region, reflecting the complex interplay between tradition and modernity in Japan’s ongoing journey of transformation.

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